Pioneers West

Women

Pioneer Women

By the year 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was finished, over 350,000 pioneers had taken the Oregon Trail to start a new life. Many of these were women and most were accompanied by children. From the very first wagon train on, women would see and experience hardship like none they had ever imagined. They would also find out how strong a women could truly be. Husbands often made the decision to start life over in the west without ever asking whether the wives thought this was a good decision or how it might affect them. Some wives did have say though, and in a few instances, women not only influenced their husbands to go, but a few traveled westward by themselves.

Before heading west, many women often spent their day doing nothing more than visiting, needlework, and the occasional gardening of flowers. They had married men who were established as businessmen in the towns they then lived in. They never dreamed these same men, entrepreneurs at heart, would listen to tales of gold and prosperous green land west, and decide to pack up their families and head out themselves. Others were not from as wealthy families; their men were laborers, and already working the land, they themselves working alongside them. Neither type was in most instances prepared for the hardships that lay ahead.

Covered Wagons

The lady who took her husband's hand and followed him into the unsettled West was quite brave and courageous. Although she may have supported her husband in the move she was often terrified for his and her family's lives. Life in the West was not extravagant and, oftentimes, lonely. A pioneer lady spent her days working hard on the prairie, making a fine home to raise good children which spoke to the great legacy she left behind. All of her devotion was to God and family. However isolated she was, she did find socialization with other women at quilting parties and at church.

Women had many children to help with chores on the trail. Most of her children, especially the girls, were illiterate. It wasn't until the middle 1800's that school became an option for her children. Her children learned skills and hands on training on the prairie. The Bible was the authority taught in the family. That obligation was shared by both parents. Some men left the spiritual education up to their wives. Unfortunately, some pioneer women could not read. Her most important knowledge was the skills of running a large household, sewing, crocheting, mending, darning, cooking and raising small children.

Fashion, of course, was different than in the city. Gone were the pioneer lady's days of silk dresses and bustles. Those she left behind in the city. Now, her dresses were made from cotton and shortened a bit in length due to all the dirt and mud. However, she did spruce up for parties by adding ruffles to her dresses. Any fabric left over, no matter how small, she collected for a later time to make quilts with other pioneer ladies.

Before a family could head west, first the wagon must be packed. This task fell normally to the woman of the house. A list would be prepared, household items that they would no longer need or deemed unable to be carried along, would be sold off first, to help pay for the trip. This would be the first of many heartbreaking hardships. Most women would soon realize that personal possessions did not mean as much though, as the more basic supplies soon came to mean life itself. Once this was done, the wagon would be packed. Clothing and furniture were packed, but food was the main item to be gathered. This would have included mainly staples, such as beans, coffee, flour, salt, a cow to be milked, and dried meat. As they traveled, many families would run low on food, and it was common to slaughter and eat the oxen they had brought along to start their new life over once they arrived at their destination.

Furniture that was originally packed from the items not sold, such as a favorite rocker or chest, would often be discarded along the way, as they would come to rivers that needed to be forded. The extra weight could not be risked, and an item a woman had packed and thought necessary was soon piled along the trail as nothing more than trash.

River Crossing

In the end, pioneer women would leave more than discarded furniture along the trail as they traveled west. Many buried not only one child, but also several. A child could fall out of a wagon and quickly be run over before anyone could even react. Husbands killed during accidents were also not that exceptional. Pioneer women themselves also perished. Typhoid and cholera traveled quickly through many wagon trains, killing at random. Indian skirmishes did occur, but not as many as one might think. Most Indian skirmishes were with the settlers who had reached their destinations. Babies were born in the roughest conditions. Many died and the women would not only have the heartbreak of the infants death, but also of having to leave behind the body in a place that they knew they would never again see.

Pioneer women were not always ‘women’. Girls learned to grow up fast, and if not, were forced to. Marriage as young as 14 and 15 was very common. Once a family had reached their destination, hired hands that had accompanied these families west often married into the family. The idea of a familiar face for a neighbor in a strange land was often enough for a father to give permission for his daughters to marry, even at such a young age. Mothers also would welcome their daughters as neighbors over some stranger.

Once they did reach their destination, the work was far from over. A house would need to be built, and as many arrived in the late summer or fall, that meant that this work often would be done in the cold of winter. Women quickly learned to wield an ax right alongside their husbands. At the first sign of spring, a garden would need to be planted. This was hard work and the women often did much of this themselves. After trees were cleared and stumps removed, the ground would need to be worked up. This often entailed heavy work behind an ox or mule. After the planting was done, water would need to be supplied. This was besides water for cooking, cleaning, and washing that they were already hauling each day. Pioneer women also had to deal with rodents, marauding animals, including bear and coyotes, and lions. Indians were also a concern, and some did fall to their deaths by the Indians' hand. Where were the men when all this was being done? Working the fields or mining were the two most usual occupations. They had their hands full and their remaining work, which there was plenty of, fell to the women and the oldest children if there were any. These women battled mosquitoes, bugs, sand, heat, and farm pests. Primarily wives and mothers, raised and nursed children, cooked daily meals with what was available, canned local fruits and vegetables, made jellies, pickles, and catsup, washed the laundry outdoors on a rub board and ironed with heavy cast irons heated on an open campfire.

Women who headed west learned quickly that there was much more to life than teas and visiting. Through journals that many left behind, we know that most would do it again. This was their life.

In addition to the hardships of the trail, the pioneer women, imbued with modesty, often had to endure a humiliating lack of privacy. Between campsites, they sometimes used their long skirts to shield a companion from inquiring male eyes. In camps, they sometimes turned to flimsy canvas latrines. At the occasional watering holes, available to men as well as women, they had to wash the rags that had served as sanitary napkins.

As wagontrains rolled westward through the desert landscape, the women often had to ration their use of the limited water, knowing it first had to answer the thirst of the pioneers and their livestock. Then, should there be a spare tubful, a woman might make it serve multiple purposes—washing dishes, washing clothes and bathing children in the same water.

With the poor sanitation and the punishing environment taking an inevitable toll on the health of the pioneers, the women became the principal caregivers, treating the sick, setting broken bones, amputating limbs, delivering babies.

{SOAP MAKING}  {CANDLE AND LIGHTING}  {BROOMS AND BRUSHES}   {NO EGGS SOLUTION}
{WASHING CLOTHES}  {CHURNING BUTTER}  {PIONEER DISHWARE}


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